“Boleyn! Boleyn!” Victoria was trying to make a grab for her pillow in the upstairs bedroom when she heard the desperate calls of her Tia Pansang. “We have to go. Now!”
It was the eve of March 25, 1945. The Americans had finally returned to the islands and had been bombarding the hills and strategic areas of Cebu City for weeks. There had been flyers all over the streets warning of air raids and an imminent battle in the vicinity. They had to evacuate the city again. But unlike the first time they evacuated, when 12,000 Japanese overran Cebu on April 12, 1942, Victoria, her Tio Federico (a.k.a. Tico), and his wife Pansang knew where to go. She also knew better to bring some form of comfort. Hence, the mad dash for a pillow.
The long walk to Danao was arduous and impossibly hot to be in the middle of the night. Many civilians were doing the same 30 km walk with them. Not for the first time, she sadly felt relieved that her beloved Lola Consor and her beautiful, willful mother Charing died before all this happened. They never would have survived the torturous journeys to safety, the lack of good bread (or any bread for that matter), and the horrendous murder scenes that had unfolded before her overprotected eyes. Especially during these past few months. The Japanese were always ruthless. But now with imminent defeat, they were savages.
* * *
What pained her the most out of that senseless need for Imperial Japan to occupy Asia was not so much that she had to teach Japanese, a very foreign language, to her Filipino students to help the conquerors establish a semblance of order. It even wasn’t that her street, T. Padilla, and the neighboring district, Parian, had become strongholds of the Japanese so much so that guerillas were now fighting to liberate it. And, though it should be at the top of her list, it wasn’t the stress of living under constant surveillance: from the Japanese, who executed suspected American sympathizers; and from guerrillas who kidnapped and killed fellow Cebuanos suspected of Japanese collaboration. She wasn’t that sophisticated in thinking.
Out of all the awful things that have happened to her and her country, Victoria lamented the loss of her gold-lined Arabian Nights book. It was in Arabic script, a gift from her father on her 8th birthday, a year before he left for Lebanon and two years before he died. She missed her beautiful molave chest, built by her father’s cabinet makers. She had kept all her keepsakes in there: porcelain dolls; dresses from New York; a locket from her Lola Consor, the only grandparent she knew; and precious pictures. When she became an orphan at 16, that baul was all she had of her parents, her beloved Lola, and the comforts of a life she had grown accustomed to but had all seemed to vanish.
She didn’t even have her name anymore. When her family moved to Cebu and she started school, they told her that she had to start learning to write her name. But because “Jureidini” was a long name to write, she had to shorten it to just Victoria Matti. She never found out, or never thought to tell us, the real reason why she couldn’t write her family name “Jureidini”. The only name left that pointed to belonging to a family was being called by her pet name “Boleyn” (though in Cebuano it sounds more like “BOH-len”), a nickname she got from her father when she displayed the willfulness of Henry the Eighth's second wife.
When her Lola Consor died when she was 14, followed by the death of her mother when she was 16 and leaving her penniless, Victoria was lost. On April 12, 1942, when the Japanese came, she lost everything.
* * *
They stayed for a few weeks in Danao amongst the fierce guerilla fighters and local gunsmiths. When they heard news that T. Padilla street had been reclaimed by an 8,500-strong guerrilla force two weeks after they left, they made their way back.
It was the height of summer. And in that morning hike back, she was acutely aware of the sea to the left of her. On any ordinary day, she would have been chatting with her friends and cousins at the beach. She probably would have been married by then, at 24 going 25, with one child and heavy with another. But there was nothing fertile about her, or around her. The hills of Cebu that formed the spine of the island were just this one giant lump of burnt, pockmarked soil.
No grass. No trees. Just the occasional poof of something exploding.
The Americans were there somewhere on those hills, rooting out the enemy, who for their stupid honor, had not surrendered but kept on fighting until the last of them was dead. Exactly three years after the Japanese overran the shores of Cebu, President Roosevelt died. But there was not even a pause in the fighting for a moment of silence to mourn the longest serving president of the United States of America. She allowed herself a brief moment to remember her ward, sweet Mary Lou Forbes, who loved her despite being an untrained governess struggling to cope with being parentless and poor. She hoped they made it out of Bogo before the Japs came.
When they got back, there was nothing much left of the house on T. Padilla, where her mother and uncle had shared a home with her and her Lola. Frankly, it seemed odd to still be coming back to the same old house that had seen too many deaths that it was almost befitting to come back to a house of rubble. But just like everyone else, my Lola Vic had no time to ponder on things lost yet again. There was a lot of work—rebuilding, rehabilitating and reconstructing—to do.
Cebu was finally liberated on July 2, 1945 and the war officially ended on September 2. The following months seemed like a frenzy of fiestas. Music and drama were back in the scene. Lovers were reunited and married. And those who were single were sought out. Victoria, in fact, had several American suitors. She never let us forget that she could have married an American! But instead, she married a brave guerilla sergeant from Balamban, who stole a kiss during the chaos of a neighborhood fire.
On bad days, Victoria, our Lola Vic, would tell us that she married Lolo Meding because a kiss was enough of a stain on her purity. She had to marry the kisser! On good days, she told us how she would watch Lolo Meding on the stage with his commanding presence and his strong baritone, how he wrote her love poems the American boys couldn’t match, and how those nighttime haranas made her, and other girls, swoon. Lolo may not have been much of a looker, but he did have the right moves!
Those heady days right after the war changed the perspective of a generation. Life was too short for prolonged courtship and the formalities of engagements. So, just a few months of meeting, they married on December 18, 1945. Eleven months later, on October 13th my father was born. They named him Rocondrick (that is is real name, though he never spells it out) in honor of her mother Rosario, her Lola Consor, and Tio Federico.
Read the first part of the story: Love in the Time of Landlessness.